Finding Religion in Myth; Returning to Ancient Theology

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 9, 2003 | Go to article overview

Finding Religion in Myth; Returning to Ancient Theology


Byline: Carol Herman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In the 1996 "Not Out of Africa," classicist Mary Lefkowitz made an impassioned case that history should not be manipulated to suit modern political constructs such as Afrocentrism. On her way to proving that the Greeks did not steal their philosophy, theology and science from the Eyptians, she showed why myth and history are not one and the same.

With "Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn From Myths," the author goes one step further, asserting that modern readers misunderstand the role of ancient myths in history when they pay more attention to the mortal players of these stories than to the deities who govern them. Asserting that "nothing, or virtually nothing, happens without the gods," it is her aim to take readers "back in time so that [they] can see what the myths meant to audiences in the ancient world." She adds that "we do the Greeks an injustice if we assume that their religion was frivolous or immoral."

To see the myths as vehicles for communicating ancient religion in an ancient context is not easy for 21st-century readers. As the author notes, "Today more people learn about Greek mythology from modern stories than from any ancient writers." The task she sees for herself in this book is to return readers back to the original commentaries. Before doing so, however, she takes a few prisoners.

Using the "Odyssey" as a kind of bellwether, she charges that much writing about myths has been incomplete, misguided or downright wrong. She points out that Thomas Bulfinch, writing in 1855, Edith Hamilton in 1940 and Robert Graves in 1955, abridged if not utterly eliminated the influences of and emphasis on the gods.

But it is for Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), who popularized the myths in recent years, that she reserves particular opprobium. "Campbell believed, with some reason, that myths of all peoples are full of reason and can enrich our lives, if only we are ready to listen to them. But he also proceeded on the basis of the rather questionable assumption that all myths, from all cultures, conveyed the same basic messages and followed virtually the same narrative patterns. In his view, all founders of religions have gone on a quest that included departure, fulfillment, and return."

She adds that Campbell "inserts an element of spirituality in the travels of Odysseus that is entirely absent in Homer. The Island of the Sun is 'the island of highest illumination,' where Odysseus might have achieved full enlightenment. Campbell's Odysseus, like a yogi, is searching for self-knowledge and seeking to renounce worldly values."

As she points out, "the episode of the Island of the Sun is not the moment of highest illumination, in fact, but the nadir of the hero's journey, the beginning of seven years of lonely isolation from other human beings on the goddess Calypso's island, and of intensified desire on his part to return to his wife and native land . . . By adapting the myths to modern ways of understanding, Campbell deprives them of their original meaning."

After dispatching those who tampered with the myths, the author sets about - in a calmer voice - to steer people away from such misapprehensions. …

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